05 Brahms Widman SchiffJohannes Brahms – Clarinet Sonatas
András Schiff; Jörg Widmann
ECM New Series ECM 2621 (emcrecords.com)

Few people play the clarinet so well, compose so well and exemplify the title “musician” so well as Jörg Widman. Substitute “piano” for “clarinet,” and leaving aside composition, the same applies to András Schiff. What a fantastic collaboration this recording of Brahms’ Sonatas for Piano and Clarinet Op.120 turns out to be. The subtitle is accurate: the piano is an equal partner, and often the more dominant. Schiff’s articulation and phrasing leave me nodding in wonder and delight. Widman’s mastery throughout is unparalleled. The two have collaborated often enough that it’s like listening in on a conversation between brilliant friends. Brahms couldn’t have asked for a more united and insightful reading. 

They open with Sonata No.2 in E-flat Major, which makes sense if, like me, you prefer Sonata No.1 in F Minor. As wonderful as the performance is, there is nothing that can convince me the second sonata carries as much water as the first, which is more in the composer’s Sturm und Drang manner. They focus, in the first movement of the F Minor, not so much on angst as resigned sadness. The same mood runs into the second movement adagio, taken at the bottom of the range of possible tempi at the outset, nudged gently forward in the middle section, and relaxed back in Schiff’s brief cadenza. 

Widman dedicated his Five Intermezzi to Schiff: solo pieces whose title and content hearken back to Brahms’ late piano pieces. Interposed between the sonatas here, they serve as (mostly) brief enigmas to tease the listener. Think of a clouded mirror. Think of the grumpy ghost of Brahms, still pining, revisiting melancholy.

06 Moszkowski webMoritz Moszkowski – Orchestral Music Volume Two
Sinfonia Varsovia; Ian Hobson
Toccata Classics TOCC 0557 (naxosdirect.com/search/5060113445575)

Fate was surely unkind to the once-celebrated composer and conductor, Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925): his marriage ended, his teenaged daughter died, avant-garde movements rendered his compositions “old-fashioned” and his considerable fortune disappeared when World War I obliterated his investments. After years of failing health, he died an impoverished recluse in Paris.

Until the recent revival of interest in lesser-known Romantic-era repertoire, all that survived in performance from Moszkowski’s large output were a few short piano pieces that occasionally appeared as recital encores. Nevertheless, it’s hard to believe that his Deuxième Suite d’Orchestre, Op.47 (1890) is only now receiving its first-ever recording – it’s far too good to have been ignored for so long!

The 41-minute, six-movement work begins with the solemnly beautiful Preludio, in which extended chromatic lyricism builds to a near-Wagnerian climax. The urgent, increasingly furious Fuga and syncopated, rocking Scherzo suggest Mendelssohn on steroids. The long lines of the lovely Larghetto are warmly Romantic, gradually blossoming from tranquil to passionate. The cheerful, graceful Intermezzo leads to the Marcia, a surging blend of Wagner and Elgar that ends the Suite in a proverbial blaze of glory.

Moszkowski’s Troisième Suite d’Orchestre, Op.79 (1908), in four movements lasting 27 minutes, is much lighter and brighter, almost semi-classical in its sunny charm. The robust playing of Sinfonia Varsovia under conductor Ian Hobson adds to this CD’s many pleasures. Here’s winning proof that there’s lots of “good-old-fashioned” music still waiting to be rediscovered and enjoyed!

07 Osorio French webThe French Album
Jorge Federico Osorio
Cedille CDR 90000 197 (naxosdirect.com/search/735131919722)

In a promotional video for Cedille Records’ new release, The French Album by Jorge Federico Osorio, the pianist himself suggests that Claude Debussy argued that French music, above all, “must give pleasure.” If these words were taken as marching orders for the great Mexican pianist, then it should be noted that his 2020 album represents a job well done. No doubt, unpacking, and then reassembling, music that spans composers, generations and musical eras (Baroque, Romantic, 20th century) into an expressive and cohesive narrative that moves beyond a simple shared place of origin towards something more profound, is yeoman’s work to be sure, but work which Osorio, a concertizing pianist and faculty member at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, handles with aplomb, care and musicality. It is difficult to imagine what exactly the aesthetic similarities are within the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, Emmanuel Chabrier, Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, but Osorio manages to connect the repertoire by way of his expressive touch, superior musicality and interpretive mastery. By performing these well-known and hugely popular pieces, such as Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, in its originally intended solo piano context – audiences may be more familiar with the composer’s 1910 orchestral version – Osorio affords listeners an intimate look into the subtle and deliberate compositional motion of this war horse that, perhaps despite accusations of being overplayed, is magnificent in both conception and interpretation here. 

Similarly, French (and European more generally) fascination (exoticization?) with Spanish melodies and rhythms (Chabrier’s Habanera; Debussy’s La Puerta del Vino and La soirée dans Grenade; and Ravel’s Alborado del gracioso), moves here beyond a fetishization of otherness. Osorio achieves a coherent musical statement that places the simple, Romantic, and decidedly French, expressionism of Debussy’s Clair de lune, for example, in conversation with the complexity of those fiery Iberian rhythms, providing a welcome release.

08 LSO Debussy Ravel webDebussy Ravel
London Symphony Orchestra; Francois-Xavier Roth
LSO Live LSO0821D (lsolive.lso.co.uk)

A sonic adventure! This impressive new release features three masterworks of French Impressionism by

two of its greatest exponents, Debussy and Ravel, in superb SACD stereo sound using the latest high-density recording technology and conducted by one of today’s most charismatic and enterprising maestros, French conductor Francois-Xavier Roth. He “creates empathetic musicality and flair for colour and such startling touches that the players look stunned” (London Times); “…there’s never anything routine about his approach.” (Gramophone)

Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole emerges in pianissimo from total darkness with four descending notes that reoccur in all movements, unifying the work. It then progresses with “cumulative vitality” into sunlight with three dance movements: Malagueña, Habanera and – exploding in fortissimo – the final movement Fiera. To maintain the suspense and gradual crescendo is a real test for the conductor who is showing his lion claws already.

Thanks to medici.tv I actually watched him conducting the Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune with the London Symphony and was impressed by his emphasis on the individual players’ spontaneity, the wonderful interplay of woodwinds supported by the harps and the horns. The overall arch-shape is very clear: from the meandering, voluptuous solo flute through ever-changing textures into the passionate fortissimo middle part and sinking back into pianissimo as the faun, after being aroused by the elusive nymphs, goes back to slumber.

The real clincher is Debussy’s iconic La mer. Debussy’s immense achievement captures “the majesty and delicacy, fury and stillness, effervescence and power of the sea” and inspires Roth to give an extraordinary performance, careful attention to detail, stunning orchestral effects and an overall epic sweep with a very exciting ending.

09 Hindemith Kammer 4 7Hindemith – Kammermusik IV - VII
Kronberg Academy Soloists; Christoph Eschenbach
Ondine ODE 1357-2 (naxosdirect.com/search/0761195135723)

Christoph Eschenbach and the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra bring us a second volume of pieces that Paul Hindemith chose to lump into one category: Kammermusik. They are all works for smaller ensembles. Most or all require conductor, which is unusual for chamber music; they are complexly orchestrated for bands of varying instrumentation. Here are the latter four in the series. Hindemith was perhaps most easily described as a neo-classical composer, but this reduction definitely omits more than it describes. As an unabashed fan of his music, I’m in a reductive category as well, it sometimes seems. I love the clarity of his ideas and forms, the cleverness of his counterpoint, the freshness of his harmonic language. 

Kammermusik IV is a violin concerto. Don’t look for many clues in his movement titles other than an indication of the type of pace for each, but the second movement is titled “Nachtstuck” (literally Night Piece); not exactly a nocturne, but still yes, a nocturne. There is expression here, and quirkiness, as in the interlude that seems to depict the chirpings of nocturnal creatures in the forest. The final two movements run together, and the violinist is devilishly good, as are the players in the micro-orchestra. Kammermusik V is a Viola Concerto, one that Hindemith frequently performed himself. The finale is a Marche Militaire, where one might expect a certain ironic humour to play out. It does not disappoint. VI features the viola d’amore, and VII, the organ. 

Hindemith was not neo anything except possibly neo-Hindemith. Fresh, prolific and always inspired, it will be a century before he is accorded the kind of stature given Mozart. Says me.

10 Cello in my lifeThe Cello in My Life
Steuart Pincombe
7 Mountain Records 7MNTN-019 (steuartpincombe.com)

Cellist Steuart Pincombe’s choice of repertoire on this album is both diverse and connected. With exquisite musicianship, and skillful dedication to the delivery, he takes a deeper delve into the material of each composer and finds a way to link them together, in spite of the nearly 200 years separating them. He has highlighted the “gesture” – the energy and physical motive which begins a sound – and he does it with an attention to detail and authenticity which I found totally absorbing. The nuances of grit, breath and space spanned the entire album, beginning with the Bach Suite V in C Minor which flowed with a high volume of intent. The recording is edgy and perfectly flawed with a realness that included delightful burbles from the scordiatura.   

Pincombe’s interpretations of both the early music and the modern instructions stay clear of both exaggeration and nerdiness. Rather, his energy is felt from a bodily sense deep within and is executed perfectly while still enunciating his passion for the freely gestural energy he programmed. Perhaps during this time of lost public performances I was especially appreciative of the rawness, the energy and the unprocessed feel of the recordings.

Helmut Lachenmann’s piece Pression, written in 1969, is a long exploration of playing parts of the cello not generally found on an album containing an entire Bach suite, and is simultaneously deeply serious and lighthearted, both darkly gritty and otherworldly shimmering. Pincombe dives deep and invests his whole being in this piece, exploring the depths of the complex instructional score and arriving with a presence also to be credited to the masterful miking of the performance, no doubt a complicated process. Here, he pushes his cello to the wall, and we are the grateful recipients of his dedication. The whole album is sensuous from start to finish but this performance stole my heart.

11 Grimaud MessengerThe Messenger
Hélène Grimaud; Camerata Salzburg
Deutsche Grammophon 00028948378531 (deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue)

Hélène Grimaud opened her recital at Koerner Hall on March 8 with a Bagatelle by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. It began so quietly that it took a few moments to realize Grimaud had started playing. On this new recording she plays five equally understated works by Silvestrov, patiently uncovering the layers of mystery which envelop these enchanting works. Yet even in the most restrained passages, she is so deeply expressive that these wistful, melancholy works resonate with life.  

Silvestrov wrote two versions of one of his most celebrated works, The Messenger for solo piano and for piano with chamber orchestra. It’s a treat to have both versions together here. Since The Messenger is infused with the spirit of Mozart, placing these two very different composers side by side – though hardly a reach – proves rich in possibilities. 

But, surprisingly, the Mozart works that Grimaud has selected, two Fantasias and the Concerto in D Minor, represent the composer at his most theatrical. In the Mozart (where she uses the cadenzas by Beethoven, since Mozart didn’t leave any), Grimaud is at her most exciting – dramatic, sensuous and virtuosic. 

In both Mozart and Silvestrov, the fluent Camerata Salzburg captures the most nuanced phrases with sensitive, buoyant support.

Grimaud’s recital turned out to be the last live concert I heard before the lockdown. On this disc she dazzles once again, uncovering direct connections between Mozart at his most profound and the otherworldly music of Silvestrov, written more than 200 years later.

12 Tanbou Kache webTanbou Kache
Diana Golden; Shawn Chang
New Focus Recordings FCR279 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue)

Haiti, impoverished by unrelenting disasters – hurricanes, earthquakes and depredating exploitation from within and abroad – has nevertheless maintained an extraordinarily rich artistic heritage; vibrant, joyous, unconquerable. I’ve been there and experienced it first-hand. So has New York-based cellist Diana Golden, teaching in the art-city of Jacmel. She’s also conducted research at Montreal’s Société de recherche et de diffusion de la musique haïtienne.

Golden explains that the CD’s title, meaning “hidden drums,” refers to the Vodou drums accompanying traditional folk songs. The eight pieces, each lasting between five and 13 minutes, vary stylistically from the neo-Baroque Petite Suite for solo cello by Werner Jaegerhuber (1900-1953) to the minimalist meditations of Femiel, part of an 80-minute work for electronic instruments by Daniel Bernard Roumain (b.1970).

I particularly enjoyed the distinctively Haitian compositions. The bittersweet Légende créole by Justin Élie (1883-1931) incorporates a children’s song about hide-and-seek. Affecting, soulful, folkloric melodies fill the Suite haïtienne by Frantz Casséus (1915-1993), originally for guitar, here arranged by Julio Racine (b.1945). In Racine’s own Sonate à Cynthia (2014), two rhythmic Allegros bracket the pentatonic motifs of the lyrical Cantilena. Carmen Brouard (1909-2005) spent her last 29 years in Montreal where she helped found the Société mentioned above. Her Duo Sentimental pits Haitian pentatonics against a twelve-tone row, ending in a harmonious Amoroso.

Golden’s closely-miked, dark-hued tone and expressive phrasing, aided by Taiwanese-Canadian pianist Shawn Chang, make a strong case for the unfairly neglected music of this unfairly neglected country.

01 Omar DanielLand’s End Ensemble performs chamber music of Omar Daniel
Laura Hynes; Land’s End Ensemble; Karl Hirzer
Centrediscs CMCCD 28120 (cmccanada.org)

This welcome Centrediscs CD includes four chamber works by Canadian composer Omar Daniel performed by the Calgary-based Land’s End Ensemble. Daniel has risen steadily in the Canadian composition world with prestigious commissions, awards and university appointments. The music is rigorous, lively and imaginative; his program notes mention influences of Estonian folk music plus Northern and Eastern European composers, as in the exciting Duo for Violoncello and Piano (2018). Its finale’s title, Allegro barbaro, acknowledges Bartók’s piano work. The Jules Léger Prize-winning Zwei Lieder nach Rilke (1996) for voice and nine-instrument ensemble is another favourite; soprano Laura Hynes’ secure, rich voice handles high B splendidly. This note makes a thrilling climax for the setting of Rilke’s Die Engel, where angels spread their wings and “set winds in motion.” 

Piano Trios Nos.1 (1999) and 2 (2015) were written for the outstanding Land’s End Ensemble core, consisting of John Lowry, violin; Beth Root Sandvoss, cello; and Susanne Ruberg-Gordon, piano. Daniel describes Trio No.1 as an “exploration of opposites.” I found it challenging; after a soft mysterious cello opening, the piano bursts in with truly threatening dissonant outbursts. The contrasts continue in alternation between instruments towards the second movement’s end, and in the distance travelled between the finale’s near-silent opening and loud strings plus upward-rushing piano scales later. In Trio No.2 the composer notes a change in direction involving, among other things, the presence of nostalgia, made explicit in the consonances of the last movement.

02 Luciane CardassiGoing North
Luciane Cardassi
Redshift Records TK480 (lucianecardassi.com/going-north)

The eight pieces that comprise pianist Luciane Cardassi’s latest release, Going North, are an impressive array of works by Canadian and Brazilian composers. The album is made up of several unique journeys – each piece providing a place where Cardassi’s panorama of expression, and mastery of unusual playing techniques, shine with a world-class radiance.  

The varied colours and vocal interjections in Terri Hron’s AhojAhoj create a clever collection of sonic cross-play. In a piece titled Wonder, Emilie Lebel gives us exactly that: a complexity of engaging musical events that bewilder and enchant. Chantale Laplante’s Estudio de um piano inhabits a world of distant creaks and whispers where a sorrowful beauty permeates a hollowed atmosphere. Punchy dissonances and prickly gestures pierce through rugged landscapes in Darren Miller’s For Will Robbins.

The hypnotic aura produced in Converse (a piece credited to several composers) offers a gentle pathway amid the turf of more abrasive expanses heard on the album. Last on the release, we are left with the mysterious whimsy in Fernando Mattos’ The Boat Sings, a work that creates an organic time domain of rubbery substances. 

The highly skilled interpretive prowess of Cardassi leaves no doubt as to why this pianist has established herself as one of Canada’s most important champions of contemporary music. With such an enticing set of performances, I’ll be listening many more times, and looking out, eagerly, for the next release from Cardassi.

03 Take The Dog SledAlexina Louie – Take the Dog Sled
Evie Mark; Akinisie Sivuarapik; Esprit Orchestra; Alex Pauk
Centrediscs CMCCD 28320 (cmccanada.org)

Evie Mark and Akinisie Sivuarapik practice and work to preserve traditional Inuit culture in northern Quebec’s Nunavik region; they have performed as throat singers around the world. Alexina Louie is one of Canada’s most distinguished composers, and the Toronto-based Esprit Orchestra, conducted by Alex Pauk, champions contemporary music and innovative approaches. As the Centrediscs program notes state: “Take the Dog Sled is a celebration of life in the Inuit communities in Canada’s far north.” Composed for Montreal Symphony musicians in 2008, it consists of eight musical numbers, five of which feature traditional Inuit songs. In throat singing, two women interact closely, facing each other. Louie’s scoring for the seven-member instrumental ensemble is lean and transparent, minimalist at times, supporting and adding musical variety to the singing. 

Sharpening the Runners on the Dog Sled is the first song, appealing and rhythmic as the activity suggests. Cradle Song is instrumental, a mother’s love for her child expressed simply then becoming more complex with cross-rhythms and parallel lines. The Mosquito is another traditional song, with added staccato, pizzicato, and a buzzing double bass tone; the instrumental Bug Music carries forth the humourous possibilities. I especially like the throat singing in The River, combining suggestions of flow and fear. The work has succeeded with audiences in many parts of the world, and is suitable for listeners of all ages. It is an achievement for which the contributors indeed deserve congratulations!

05 English Horn AloneMusic for English Horn Alone
Jacqueline Leclair
New Focus Recordings FCR272 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue)

Jacqueline Leclair’s latest album Music for English Horn Alone features seven works for solo English horn, four of which – by Hannah Kendall, Faye-Ellen Silverman, Karola Obermüller and Cecilia Arditto – are spectacular premieres. Leclair, known in the music community as a contemporary music specialist on oboe, brilliantly showcases her flair for new music techniques on the oboe’s darker cousin with equally stunning results, making these works an invaluable addition to the repertoire. 

From the outset, Leclair’s playing is exceptional; the richness of tone and beautiful, subtle articulations are displayed over the entire range. From multiphonics, flutter-tonguing, note-bending and the exploration of the extreme soft dynamic, Leclair charms with her mastery of the English horn.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this thoughtful assortment is its ability to captivate and give rise to autonomic responsiveness to touch and visual and auditory stimulation through its exploration and depiction of the instrument’s possibilities and range, whisking the listener from one culture and destination to another without the need to traverse the physical. If one had to describe this collection in a single word, it would be “borderless.”

Listen to 'Music for English Horn Alone' Now in the Listening Room

06 Transient CanvasRight Now, In a Second
Transient Canvas
New Focus Recordings FCR267 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue)

The ephemeral nature of sound is exquisitely captured in the poetry of this new music performed by bass clarinettist Amy Advocat and Matt Sharrock, a percussion colourist heard here on marimba. Experimental music, made with incongruous instrumental pairings, often begs the question: Can sound be toyed with if only to fill the heart and mind with a sense of wonder? Advocat and Sharrock answer in the affirmative, and emphatically at that.

The bass clarinet – among the whole family of single-reed woodwinds – is probably the most diabolically difficult to master. Advocat makes light work of it all with her extraordinary virtuosity, her application of soft dynamics to create atmospheric effect, and by this I don’t mean such effects that suggest the lugubrious (something she does on Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Rebounds), but also something resembling a beautiful gravitas (which is evoked on resonance imaging by Crystal Pascucci). 

Sharrock’s radiant marimba is the perfect foil for the rumblings of the bass clarinet. His crystalline sculpting of notes informs Stefanie Lubowski’s composition Right now, in a second. Meanwhile he turns his instrument into a kind of living, breathing being, as with glancing blows of mallets on wood he conjures a close dance with the bass clarinettist. 

The masterful centrepiece is Clifton Ingram’s Cold column, calving. This music seems to bow in reverence to the earth’s ancient permafrost. As it unfolds, you get a sense of how expressively the musicians tease out the geographical metaphor of this piece with profound grandeur.

01 Alex MoxonAlex Moxon Quartet
Alex Moxon Quartet
Independent (alexmoxon.com)

The Ottawa-based guitarist, Alex Moxon, is a musical omnivore, his very personal style of playing clearly informed by an early diet of many styles and idioms of music. Best of all, Moxon is a shining example of what true musicality means and how it is meant to devolve from composition to performance. This 2020 recording is an exquisite example, from its unassuming title and the whimsical honesty of the cover photograph, the absence of liner notes to explain any gratuitous raison d’être for the music and, of course, the music itself. 

Not for Moxon are flurries of notes, dramatically rising and falling arpeggios, cerebrally dazzling runs up and down the fretboard. He strips bare the melody of each song that he has interiorized, distills the intended harmonic conception to the essential chords and rings in the changes to evoke mood and emotion very effectively. His single-note lines are beautifully moulded, the sound of his phrases are exquisitely elliptical. He turns harmony inside out, as on Piety in Crescent Park, and his sense of time is flawless. This is evident all over the repertoire of this album. 

Another interesting aspect is the sonic space that is created for both the chordal instruments – Moxon’s guitar and the piano played with character by Steve Boudreau, especially on the dancing, contrapuntal merry-go-round of Wood Chop. Empathetic performances are also shared by rhythm twins, bassist John Geggie and drummer Michel Delage, who also shine in their own right.

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02 Will BonnessChange of Plans
Will Bonness
Independent (willbonness.com)

As a guitarist by trade, I have always been jealous of the harmonic possibilities available to pianists. Ten fingers and 88 keys, paired with the visual nature of the keyboard, gives them a unique advantage as orchestrators and arrangers. This is often rebutted by my piano-playing colleagues with things they’re jealous of in the guitar and saxophone worlds; easier legato phrasing and longer sustained notes come to mind. Winnipeg pianist Will Bonness’ new release, Change of Plans, does an excellent job of utilizing the piano’s advantages and showcasing his musicianship in a quintet setting, with vocals by Jocelyn Gould and Jon Gordon on saxophone. They are joined by Julian Bradford on bass and Fabio Ragnelli on drums. The resulting album strikes an imperturbable balance between modernity and grounding in the jazz tradition. 

It is refreshing to hear this kind of contemporary music being created in Canada. Particularly in Winnipeg, whose long thriving music scene unfairly receives less attention than those of many larger Canadian cities. Change of Plans’ originals, arrangements of standards and one Smashing Pumpkins cover, all call to mind the cutting edge often associated with New York City. While each of the quartet’s members has spent ample time in that scene, this album should receive extra attention for being a Winnipeg one at heart. While so many younger Canadian musicians move abroad, the commitment to community present on this recording makes it unique, and a globally relevant offering of Canadiana.

03 Doxas BrothersThe Circle
Doxas Brothers
Justin Time JTR 8624-2 (justin-time.com/en/album/631)

Tenor saxophonist Chet and drummer Jim Doxas are quite the power duo. Besides the obvious lifelong bond that comes with being brothers, they have the added privilege of considering each other lifelong musical counterparts. Their deeply rooted chemistry really shines through on their debut album as the Doxas Brothers. The welcome additions of pianist Marc Copland and bassist Adrian Vedady also contribute to the family vibe, as they have been associated with the brothers Doxas for years in a variety of contexts. The synergistic result is some of the most intoxicating post-bop you’re likely to find this year. 

Recorded in its entirety by Jim and Chet’s father George Doxas in their family’s Montreal studio, the album has an endearing homemade sound quality to it that really adds to the experience. Every aspect is built with TLC, and the level of comfort with which the musicians interact is extremely apparent. Chet carries a majority of the load compositionally, contributing six tunes out of a total of eight. His style is distinctive, while still remaining faithful to his influences, sometimes evoking greats such as pianist Andrew Hill. One of the most admirable characteristics of the music is Chet’s acute attention to detail. Each melody manages to leave an impression while still having his own brand of intricacy and nuance. This album is a restrained affair with a rather hushed approach, and the polished interplay within the tight-knit ensemble will leave the listener mesmerized.

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